Toms River

Toms River by Dan Fagin Read Free Book Online

Book: Toms River by Dan Fagin Read Free Book Online
Authors: Dan Fagin
had spread to the liver and lymph nodes. Michael, the surgeon told his stunned parents, had a 50 percent chance of reaching his first birthday. A cure was unlikely (at the time, the long-term survival rate for metastatic neuroblastoma was only about 5 percent), but aggressive chemotherapy might buy him some time. 11
    Michael’s cancer, like most others, was named for the cells where the malignant transformation began. Neuroblasts are one of the everyday miracles of fetal development, primitive stem cells that form during the first days of an embryo’s existence and gradually transform into neurons, or nerve cells. In most of us, neuroblasts do their job and then quietly retire, occasionally stirring again to supply additional neurons when needed. But Michael’s neuroblasts neverstopped running at top speed. While he was still in the womb, they started to divide frenetically, clumping together in fast-growing tumors that first formed in his adrenal glands but could appear in any organ with nerve cells, including his eyes, spine, and brain. The cancer was named in 1910 after its origin in neuroblasts was confirmed, but Rudolf Virchow was the first to describe it, in 1864, based on a case description of a child with a large abdominal tumor. Michael’s cancer probably began in the first weeks of his mother’s pregnancy. A year later, the tumors were large enough to compress many of his vital organs, including his heart, lungs, spine, bowels, eyes, and brain. They also distorted Michael’s facial features, transforming his countenance from Raphaelite cherub to something much more abstract.
    By themselves, the symptoms of neuroblastoma were more than sufficient to kill Michael, but now he also had to face the horrific side effects of chemotherapy and high-dose steroid treatments, including chronic diarrhea and vomiting, severely stunted growth, a hypersensitive stomach, pounding headaches, brittle bones, and collapsed veins. It was all too much for the Gillicks, and after weeks of chemotherapy failed to slow the growth of the main abdominal tumor, they decided to take Michael home. When he turned six months old, his family celebrated Michael’s first birthday, assuming that it would be their only opportunity to do so. Linda Gillick called funeral parlors and even purchased an infant-sized coffin so that she would not have to go through the agony of buying one when the time came. Her son had been given the medical equivalent of a death sentence; he was trapped in a prison from which there was no realistic chance of escape.
    Michael Gillick did not escape his cell, but he did not die either. He made it to Christmas, then to his real first birthday and then to another Christmas, and another. His tumors did not spontaneously disappear, as sometimes happens with neuroblastoma, but their growth slowed. Contrary to the doctors’ predictions, the malignancies did not crush any of his vital organs, though there were many terrifying emergency hospitalizations. Radiation therapy cost Michael his golden locks without eliminating the facial tumor that damaged his hearing, blurred his vision, and several times even temporarily blinded him—an especially terrifying experience for a child.Three types of chemotherapy similarly failed. At Michael’s insistence, the grueling treatments stopped when he was eight. Other than morphine, one of the few helpful drugs his ravaged body could tolerate was a blood pressure medication called Regitine. But that drug was no longer being produced in pill form by its manufacturer, a company the Gillicks had heard of because
everyone
in Toms River had heard of it: Ciba-Geigy, the Swiss corporation that owned the local chemical plant. Michael was slowly working through his stockpile of the pill.
    Several of Linda Gillick’s neighbors worked at the chemical plant, but she was far too preoccupied with Michael to pay attention to the occasional articles in the local papers about pollution there and at the

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